Author Interviews
6:47 am
Sat September 14, 2013

Cows Have Accents ... And 1,226 Other 'Quite Interesting Facts'

Originally published on Sat September 14, 2013 10:28 am

Did you know that cows moo in regional accents? Or that 1 in 10 European babies was conceived in an IKEA bed? Or that two-thirds of the people on Earth have never seen snow?

The BBC quiz show QI celebrates these "quite interesting" tidbits of information with obscure questions that reward the players for both correct answers and interesting ones. John Lloyd, one of the creators of the show, teamed up with QI researchers John Mitchinson and James Harkin to compile a treasure trove of factoids in 1,227 Quite Interesting Facts to Blow Your Socks Off.

Lloyd and Mitchinson tell NPR's Scott Simon about the strategy behind the book's layout, which juxtaposes amusing facts (Beyonce's eighth cousin four times removed is Gustav Mahler) with more sobering ones (only half the people who reached America on the Mayflower in 1620 survived to the spring of 1621).

"It's not just a list of trivia," says Mitchinson. "Work is three times more dangerous than war. These things ought to set off little chains in your mind and reflections on what the truth about life really is."

Some facts in the book make a shocking connection: George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein had their shoes hand-made by the same Italian cobbler. Some are ironic: The most-shoplifted book in the United States is the Bible. Others are just as true but pack less of a philosophical punch.

"I must say, there are things in the book that you wonder who spent their time finding these things out," laughs Lloyd. "Giving hamsters Viagra helps them recover from jetlag 50 percent faster. I mean, who put the hamster on a jumbo jet to give it jetlag, and then tried some Viagra on it? Who's wasting public money doing this?"

There are terms you never knew you needed: "sciapodous," for feet so large they could be used as umbrellas, and "gongoozler," one who stares for a long time at things happening on a canal.

The bits of information are presented without commentary or explanation. The founder of Australia was shot to death by a camel, yes, but technically, says Lloyd, "the camel wasn't actually holding the gun with its camel toes."

Some readers have complained that certain facts are not precise. "What we are trying to do is to get people to think and not just necessarily to passively consume things," he says. "Sometimes you have to leave out ... qualifications like 'nearly,' 'almost as many as.' We tend to round up the numbers a little bit, but it's essentially all true."

1,227 Quite Interesting Facts to Blow Your Socks Off has been published in a world already saturated with facts: There is more information in one edition of The New York Times than the average person in 17th-century England would have come across in an entire lifetime — yet we retain very little of it, Lloyd says.

He suggests that if this book were taught in schools, students would learn faster and remember more because it reduces real knowledge to its most interesting elements.

For example, from the first page of the book:

Asteroid 1,227 is called Geranium.

The ozone layer smells faintly of geraniums.

The center of the galaxy tastes like raspberries.

The universe is shaped like a vuvuzela.

"Now these, left bald, they are astonishing and almost incredible. But they're all sourced," says Lloyd. "We can talk about why the center of the galaxy tastes like raspberries and how they know that. And that would be an amazing way of learning about raspberries, galaxies [and] physics."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. There are facts, and facts. A lot of facts are important but seemingly unremarkable. Then there are facts that are no less true but a lot more interesting. Facts make tongues wag, minds fire and lead people almost randomly to other facts. Except is anything human ever really random? John Lloyd and John Mitchinson have piled 1,227 interesting facts into a book with an unremarkable title: "1,227 Quite Interesting Facts to Blow Your Socks Off." John Lloyd, one of the creators of "QI," "Spitting Image," "Blackadder," and other legendary humor shows, and John Mitchinson, "QI's" director of research, joins us from the BBC in London. Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN LLOYD: Thank you.

JOHN MITCHINSON: Indeed. Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Could I ask each of you to hit us with your best facts?

LLOYD: Well, now. Per gram per second, more energy runs through a sunflower than through the sun itself.

SIMON: Beyonce is related to Mahler?

MITCHINSON: A cousin four times removed of Gustav Mahler.

LLOYD: George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein had their shoes handmade by the same Italian cobbler.

MITCHINSON: There is one wonderful fact in the book: there's more information in one edition of the New York Times than the average person in 17th century England would have come across in a lifetime.

LLOYD: We are absolutely spammed with information, aren't we, all day, every day from all these sources and actually we retain very little of it.

SIMON: What do you do if you suffer from sciapodous?

LLOYD: It means having feet large enough to be used as umbrellas.

(LAUGHTER)

LLOYD: We love...we are very keen on words. I mean, one of my fav...

SIMON: They need Saddam Hussein's shoemaker.

MITCHINSON: There's a wonderful one: gongoozler - very useful word - one who stares for a long time at things happening on a canal.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: We run into that all the time, don't we? To bring a little local interest to this, only half of the people who reached America on the Mayflower in 1620 survived to the spring of 1621. That is utterly sobering.

LLOYD: Isn't it shocking?

MITCHINSON: What we tried to do is to theme the book so you can get juxtapositions. It's a fact like that which is a sobering fact, we'll try and put that against something, which is perhaps less sobering, more amusing. But the tension that you get between different bits of information - I mean, it's not just a list of trivia. You know, work is three times more dangerous than war. These things ought to set off little chains in your mind and reflections on what the truth about life really is.

LLOYD: Well, for example: the irony - the most shoplifted book in the United States is the Bible. What's going on there?

SIMON: People seeking spiritual solace I'd like to think. Larceny...

MITCHINSON: Search for meaning, search for meaning.

SIMON: Search for meaning. Here's a fact you toss off without explanation: the founder of Australia was shot to death by a camel.

LLOYD: Yes. The camel wasn't actually holding the gun with its camel toes.

SIMON: Well, that's not clear from your book. It isn't at all...

MITCHINSON: No. Well, but it has piqued your curiosity, Scott.

LLOYD: What we are trying to do is to get people to think and, you know, not just necessarily to passively consume things but to make people think, 'cause we do a lot of complaints from people saying, oh, that's not true, that's not true. But actually, these things are true. It's a bit like tweeting, you know. I know you're a king tweeter. And to get something that concise is quite difficult. Sometimes you have to leave out bits like qualifications, like nearly, almost, as many as. We tend to round up the numbers a little bit but it's essentially all true.

SIMON: Is there a fact that you just haven't been able to wrestle into verisimilitude, if I could put it that way?

(LAUGHTER)

LLOYD: Yeah, there's some, I must say, there are things in the book that you wonder who spent their time finding these things out - that giving hamsters Viagra helps them recover from jetlag 50 percent faster. I mean, who put a hamster on a jumbo jet to give it jetlag and then tried some Viagra on it? Who's, who's wasting public money doing this?

SIMON: Do facts lead anywhere when you absorb them?

LLOYD: Well, they do to us quite seriously. Let me say this, that we think this book could be taught in school. So, I think it would be the most fun thing to get a bunch of 14-year-olds and say, right, we're going to teach one fact every half an hour for a year, and then go into the kind of detail that we can't on this program or in the book to explain the information behind what we've put down here.

So, even the first page: asteroid 1227 is called Geranium. The ozone layer smells faintly of geraniums. The center of the galaxy tastes like raspberries and the universe is shaped like a vuvuzela. Now, these, left bald, they are astonishing and almost incredible but they're all sourced and we can talk about why the center of the universe tastes like raspberries and how they know that. And that would be an amazing way of learning about raspberries, galaxies, physics. We genuinely think that if all schools were like this every day, people would learn a lot faster and they'd remember more of it. Because by reducing the stuff to the interesting information, it sticks in the mind.

SIMON: John Lloyd and John Mitchinson - maybe you can tell the difference between them. Their new book is "1,227 Quite Interesting Facts to Blow Your Socks Off." And in fact, I just looked down. My socks are gone. Gentlemen, thanks very much for being with us.

LLOYD: Thank you so much, Scott.

MITCHINSON: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.